Edwyn Collins: The pop star who answered the call of nature

After a serious illness in 2005, post-punk pioneer Edwyn Collins found solace – and therapy – in drawing.

Rob Sharp
Wednesday 02 March 2011 01:00

The cross-hatched wings, arching neck and needling beak of a pencil drawing of a grey heron tells two stories. The first belongs to its subjects. The second concerns the man whose skill brought them to life. Edwyn Collins, now 51, first caught the music press's attention in the late 1970s as the androgynous self-proclaimed "beautiful boy" fronting Orange Juice, the band that kick-started indie. Much later, he became known for the 1994 single "A Girl Like You", which stayed in the British charts for 14 weeks.

More remarkable is his ongoing recovery from a double brain haemorrhage that occurred in February 2005, as well as his artistic output since. There have been two albums, 2007's Home Again, recorded before his haemorrhage but completed afterwards, and 2010's Losing Sleep. But also helping Collins's convalescence is his use of drawing as physical and psychological therapy. Always a keen naturalist, his preferred subject is birds. In 2008, he showed a selection of his work at London's Smithfield Gallery, and Collins is now exhibiting a follow-up show of nature drawings, Nature Punk, at London's Idea Generation Gallery. Despite paralysis down his right-hand side, the artist's progress between these two exhibitions is clear. His first works, completed between 2005 and 2008, show pencil drawings of a moorhen, dotterel and pochard, which while pared back, are clearly conceived by a trained eye. Over the last few years Collins has had to learn to speak and walk again: by returning to drawing he has both reignited a boyhood passion and focused his mind. The new set of drawings seems more refined and feature a dynamic, wax-pencil drawing of a barn owl, the variegated quilt of a blue tit's coat, as well as chaffinches, terns and egrets. Collins says he feels embarrassed by some of his earlier, "cruder" efforts.

"You can see how they are getting better," he says. "Some people like the early, more simple drawings, which are changing all the time."

Most of the drawings are completed while looking out of the window of his West Hampstead house, or are copied from the Book of British Birds. But it helps.

"It's my therapy," he says. "I find the process nice, relaxing and meditative."

Collins was born in Edinburgh in 1959, and his parents met at Edinburgh Art School. His father, Peter, was an art lecturer whose magic-realist painting Consider the Lilies, a witty representation of Dundee's coat of arms, has been exhibited at London's Fleming Collection; he also has work in the National Gallery of Scotland.

"When I was eight years old I decided to draw," says Collins. "I remember walking through the country and being able to identify a palmate newt. People said it was like being around a walking encyclopedia." The family moved to Glasgow when Collins was 15, where his mother worked at the Fine Art Society.

By the age of 17 he had formed The Nu-Sonics, its members drawn from around the middle-class suburb of Bearsden. Two years later, the struggling musician took a salaried job as an illustrator for Glasgow Parks Department and was told to design booklets for tours through Glasgow's green spaces. Part of his job included guiding children on tours around green spaces. When he was out drawing one day, children asked the strangely-dressed guide if he was a punk. "No," he replied gravely, no doubt in a sonorous baritone. "I am a nature punk".

Collins is currently on tour in Europe. He says he will continue to make drawings in his Highlands home and has recently been commissioned by The Drums to do 12 illustrations inspired by their song titles for a forthcoming book.

"It's a way of keeping my mind busy," he concludes. "I like observing people and birds and animals and I like that feeling of being behind a creative force."

Edwyn Collins: Nature Punk, Idea Generation Gallery, London E2 (020 7749 6850) to 6 March

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